In the article below, journalist Lucille Davie reports on the illegal demolition of structures at Brixton and Braamfontein cemeteries. The piece was first published on the City of Joburg's website on 2 June 2011. Click here to view more of Davie's work.
In mid-April 2011 two heritage buildings were illegally demolished in the city’s oldest cemeteries, Braamfontein and Brixton, resulting in a charge being laid with the police.
The two buildings, belonging to the Chevrah Kadisha, the oldest Jewish organisation in Joburg, were older than 60 years, and therefore protected under the National Heritage Resources Act of 1999.
A spokesperson for Chevrah Kadisha, who refused to be named, said: “The buildings were so badly vandalised, there was nothing left to salvage. We wanted to protect the dignity of those buried there.”
A demolition permit is required for any demolitions, but more so if the structures are older than 60 years, after which they have general heritage protection. In this case an application has to be made to the Provincial Heritage Resources Agency (PHRA). The agency has now laid a charge with the police, for the unlawful demolition of the two buildings.
Herman Bekker, owner of the demolition company, Protector Build, confirms that no demolition permit was obtained. Protector Build has been in the building industry for 22 years, and doing demolitions for the past six years.
Bekker says he was in the process of applying for a permit, but a problem arose because the plans for the buildings could not be traced. “If we knew it was a heritage building, we would have stopped [the demolition].”
Eric Itzkin, deputy director for immovable heritage in the City’s Arts, Culture and Heritage department, says: “This is a huge loss, it is quite horrifying. There are other buildings in the Brixton Cemetery that are intact, although it is a passive cemetery.” Both cemeteries have long been dormant, except for second burials.
A scene from Brixton Cemetery (Kathy Munro)
Chairperson of the Parktown & Westcliff Heritage Trust (now the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation), Flo Bird, is equally outraged. “I am absolutely furious. They should have got a permit – they just defied the law.”
She added that the Jewish community is “very distressed” by what has happened. “This just isn’t the way you behave.” Bird is also upset that the demolishers smashed a gate post at the entrance to the cemetery, while a cast iron gate, donated by one of the early Joburg entrepreneurs, Sammy Marks, has gone missing.
Chevrah Kadisha was established in 1888, during the city's gold rush days. Its role is to take care of the welfare and burial needs of the Jewish community. The buildings, called ohels, were used to prepare bodies for burial, and from where the funeral service was conducted.
“We were here when Joburg was built, we have a tremendous appreciation for things that are old,” says the spokesperson.
Alan Buff, the horticulturist specialist in the technical support department in Joburg City Parks, says that when Braamfontein Cemetery was laid out in 1887, the Jewish community applied to President Paul Kruger for permission to build an ohel in the cemetery. When this cemetery closed in 1911, another ohel was built in the nearby Brixton Cemetery.
A scene from Braamfontein Cemetery (The Heritage Portal)
Speed of demolition
Buff expresses dismay at how quickly the two buildings were demolished. The Brixton building was demolished on 15 April, while the Braamfontein building hit the ground on 18 April. The rubble from the buildings was removed on the same day as the demolitions, and the two sites now consist of two flat, sandy wastelands.
Buff says he was away on 15 April, but when he was told of the demolition on 18 April, by the time he got to the cemetery, which is a few kilometres from his office, the building was already demolished.
Bekker says he was originally approached by Chevrah Kadisha in November last year to supply them with a quote for the demolitions.
Itzkin says Chevrah Kadisha had guards in place at the two sites until a year ago, when they were removed.
Buff confirms that vagrants had moved into the Brixton ohel, which was stripped of its windows and doors. But the building in the Braamfontein Cemetery was still in good condition. Buff says that when he asked Protector Build for the demolition permit, he was told that he would get the permit later, but he is still waiting. He adds that over the past three years, more and more vagrants have moved into the Brixton Cemetery. Chevrah Kadisha was told that this was happening.
“I am sorry that the buildings are gone, they were part of our heritage,” says Buff.
“There was a time you could plead ignorance of the need for a permit,” says Itzkin, “but everything has now been made watertight and clear.”
Itzkin says that Chevrah Kadisha has approached him, seeking redress and a way forward. They have also approached Bird. She considers that “some kind of a shelter” would be appropriate, although they have suggested a memorial.
Michael Sieff, group CEO of Chevrah Kadisha, said in a 20 May letter to Phra: “It is our intention to attempt to rehabilitate, commemorate and sustain the above sites and we request your blessing to set in motion a process by which we can achieve that.
“Since this is not an area in which we have expertise, perhaps we should appoint a heritage specialist to consult with us and recommend the proper route to be taken.
“Once we have his/her recommendations we would be in a better position to submit those to the Heritage Committee and to gain the approval of the PHRA(G).”
Lucille Davie has for many years written about South Africa's people and places, as well as the country's history and heritage. Take a look at lucilledavie.co.za